This was the last Christmas the world would ever see, and it was all Bobby Blicker’s fault.
Little Bobby, who had turned seven back in July, knew that the world around him was changing. He could hear it in Pop’s voice when he spoke of North Korea, that far away land. He could see it in Ma’s trembling hands as she counted cans of vegetables in the pantry of their farm house. He could even see a difference in Sadie, their Cocker Spaniel, as she began to scratch behind her ears so bad the skin there scabbed over, bloody.
Increasingly, tensions rose in the household. Pa said they’d have to turn the heat off. Ma said that would only happen over her dead body, because it’s zero friggin’ degrees out these days. Pa said she could take it up with the power company if she liked, but that would be pretty derned hard with the phones acting funky. A door or two would slam. Very often, arguments would explode between them and Bobby would be sent outside to play in the yard. He didn’t mind playing, especially with Sadie, but she couldn’t return his snow ball volleys, and her energy levels these days were pretty low. The last bag of dog food had gone dry weeks ago.
He missed his friends from school. Bobby wondered if Pete Loeman’s parents were fighting as much as his were. Or if Katie Dicks, whose parents had split over the summer, had to turn her heat off too. The books on his shelf were boring to him now. His army men were brittle in his tiny hands; they did not march the same way anymore.
- - -
On December twenty-third, there was a warm spell. The snow outside trickled away pretty quickly and the farm was draped in a thick fog. Bobby waited by the window to see if anything would come out of the mist. Mr. Deekon, his bus driver, would pull up to the mail box, honk his horn, and shove those glorious double doors open as he greeted Bobby with a smile.
“Lookin’ good, Bobby Blicker! Climb on up and let’s get you a’ learnin’!” And Pete and Katie would be there, too.
But there was no school bus. No Mr. Deekon. Just the fog and Ma folding and unfolding her apron with those trembling hands.
Pa touched Bobby on the shoulder.
“Stop looking out that window all day, Bob. It’s not gonna do you no good.” Bobby turned to meet his father’s gaze. “Come on and watch your Daddy chop some wood. You can even carry it back in the house.” Bobby climbed down from his perch to the playful nipping of Sadie’s jaws. Then Pa kicked her across the room angrily.
- - -
In all the fog, here was only one gnarly tree left behind the shed.
“Planted this tree ‘bout ten years before you came to us. Whad’ya think of that, Bob?”
Bobby shrugged, as he was apt to do these days. Pa stood taller than the sapling. He could just about wrap his fist around the skinniest parts of the branches.
“Yup. Normally, I’d let her grow tall and full and she probably’d be here when you had kids.” Pa paused before this next part. “Do you know why I’m going to cut down this tree today, Bob?”
Little Bobby paused, thought about it, then said: “Cuz Ma wants a fire.”
Pa tapped him on the brim of his hat, smiled, and felled that tree in three mighty swings. Bobby helped him carry the branches back inside, where Ma sat waiting to warm herself.
- - -
The fire from that tree lasted the night and into the next. The entire Blicker family slept by the hearth and Bobby woke on the morning of the twenty-fourth to a whopper of an argument. Pa called her brainless for not realizing and Ma called him a prick for not telling her.
So what, if it was Christmas eve? Just what the hell did she want him to do about it?
Bobby wandered to the kitchen and interrupted, wiping his eyes sleepily. “Go play with the dog,” was the good-morning he got. “Now!” Bobby obeyed.
Sadie and he played until she could play no more. Bobby was disappointed, sure, but she lasted longer than most days. He patted her on the head, saw the pleading in her eyes to go back inside and lay down. What was one more, right? One more throw couldn’t hurt. So Bobby launched Sadie’s favorite ball into the fog. When she took off running after it, knowing it as the only thing to do, Sadie’s legs gave out and she collapsed on the muddy ground.
- - -
Pa dug a shallow hole in the mostly-frozen dirt that night while Ma and Bobby stood idly by. His parents spent that afternoon convincing the boy that it wasn’t his fault; that Sadie was an old soul and that everything goes, sooner or later. It was Bobby’s first lesson about D-E-A-T-H.
Ma and Pa hung their heads for a moment while Bobby felt the hairs on his arms stand up. The fog around them was breaking with the coming of a cold front. Bobby looked up. He saw brilliant speckled stars appear overhead and a full moon bathed their farm in a cool glow. Bobby didn’t know where the thought came from, but he decided then and there to make a wish upon those stars. This was Bobby’s wish:
“I wish, I wish... I wish Ma and Pa would quit their arguing. I wish Sadie hadn’t died. I wish the phone lines would come back and I wish the school bus could pick me up so I could see my friends.” He paused, then added: “And I wish for a white Christmas. That would be cool. Amen.”
- - -
Bobby Blicker’s wish floated toward the night sky in the vapor of his breath, and hung just beneath the stars. It would be impossible for his seven year-old mind to distinguish between the request he had made for a snow-blessed holiday, and the nuclear fallout that was to blanket the earth and block out the very heavens Little Bobby had appealed to. That night, while the family clung to the remaining embers of the sapling tree, Pa’s greatest fears came to fruition. World powers were thrust into a volley of megaton warheads that lasted only eleven minutes.
Then -- silence, stillness the world over, and the very bright, white, Christmas Bobby had wished for.